Sent: Sunday, April 15, 2001 8:01 PM
Subject: Re: April 14, 1969
April 15, 2001
Hello Jim King, It is difficult to believe that it was 32 long years ago yesterday that we were together in a dry rice paddy in Viet Nam trying to stay alive until our wingman could come down and pick us up. Some aspects of that event are as clear as if they happened yesterday.
I was delighted to get your email today and to learn of your great success in life after the Marine Corps. I hope that your family and friends appreciate the great courage and dedication that you showed as a helicopter crewman in the Purple Foxes.
I'll try to answer some of your questions and give you a recap of the incident from my perspective. We had picked up some grunts from out in indian country and got hit by a single AK-47 round as we were climbing out of the pick up zone. I'm not sure of the first indication we had of trouble, but the first thing I recall was the crew chief (I don't remember his name) complaining over the intercom of all the smoke back in the cabin and the uneasiness of our grunt passengers. I turned my head around to see what the problem was and I saw seven or eight of the largest pairs of eye balls that I have ever seen in my life as those grunts were peering forward through the smoke toward the cockpit and wondering how soon we were going to explode or crash.
I began an immediate descent towards an island in the An Hoa river that we called football island because of its shape. It had a reputation for being bad indian country, but I was fairly keen on getting the helo on the ground before something bad happened. As we were descending through about seven or eight hundred feet the bad guys began firing at us. This was a mistake on their part because if they had just waited until we had landed and shut down they could have had easy pickings. Instead I added some power, hoping that the helo would last until we landed elsewhere, and extended our approach to land on the far bank of the river.
We used to fly with "bullet bouncers", heavy, rigid, curved armored shields that covered the front of our upper torso and rested on our thighs. There was a pocket in the fabric on the front of the shield that held a survival radio and the shoulder harness held the shield against our body. In order to get out of the seat one had to first remove the survival radio from the front pocket (it was held in by a large rubber band), unhook and lay aside both the shoulder harness and lap belt, pick up the heavy bullet bouncer, set it out of the way up on the glare shield, unplug the microphone and earphone cords, and then turn and crawl out of the seat and back through the opening beside the control closet. It normally took a while to accomplish this exit and it could not be done gracefully.
Our co pilot on that flight was Sam Ware and I don't think that he had been in country very long and I guess being shot down was sort of a shock to him. I had the helo shut down and had gone through the exit process so fast that by the time Sam turned his head toward me to ask me over the intercom what he should do that I was already unplugged and crawling out by the time his eyes met mine (I expect that that was a world record for exiting a CH-46, I know it was for me.) I can still remember how amused I was by the look of surprise on Sam's face when he saw that he was about to become the sole owner of that helo. It didn't take him long to scramble out after me.
Our wing man that day was Lt. "Beach" Baldwin. I guess he had to go off Load his troops before he could pick us up, but it didn't really take that long. Besides we had you on the .50 cal machine guns and those few grunts with us so I think we were in pretty good hands during the wait.
Beach has been one of my favorite people ever since that pick up and it wasn't until years later that people told me a story about him. As squadron operations officer I had the reputation of being a pretty demanding (read unreasonable) task master among the junior pilots. I never really realized the extent of this reputation until I heard this story. Beach was my wing man on another mission (I'm not sure whether it was before or after April 14,1969) and he was suffering from a case of diarrhea, but he was so afraid of asking me to interrupt our mission long enough to go some place that he eventually went in his flight suit and then flew for some time after rather than let me know that he needed some relief.
You mentioned the crash of Rich Bianchino that same day. That would be the one that killed Lt. Mike Nickerson. Mike had been with the squadron since up at Phu Bai and was considered one of the old hands, very experienced and very capable. He was the one who dressed up as Santa Claus in December of 1968 when we flew beer out to the grunts. I later met Mike's widow and learned that he had a very young daughter at the time of his death -- so tragic to lose so many good Marines.
Enough rambling from an old man. Let me say again how happy I am to know That another one of our Purple Foxes has survived our time together in Nam and is living a long happy life after the Marine Corps.
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